A few weeks ago, I attended the South Carolina Agriculture Council meeting to hear a discussion about “GMOs, Organic Farming, and Organic Certification.” Readers of this column know I am biased against the use of GMOs or, genetically modified organisms, in agriculture. It seems somehow wrong to insert the genes of a flounder, for example, into a tomato so that the tomato will tolerate colder temperatures, and then to eat this “Franken food.”
Dan Pitts, the Technical Development Representative from Monsanto, the company that was one of the pioneers of GMO agriculture, gave presentation on using GMOs in agriculture to “grow better crops and use less resources to do so.” With GMO corn, for example, scientists insert the pesticide BT, or bacillus thuringiensis, into the corn genes so that when a caterpillar eats the corn, it also eats the pesticide, which kills the caterpillar. Farmers do not have to spray pesticides on the fields, and, as Mr. Pitts illustrated with statistics, farmers no longer put millions of pounds of chemicals into the environment. Corn yields have increased. With Roundup® Ready Soybeans, farmers do not have to till the soil and cause erosion; they spray the herbicide, which kills the weeds but not the soybeans.
I asked Mr. Pitts about reports I have heard about pollen from GMO plants blowing into fields of plants that are not GMO, and producing plants that have the GMO genes. He said, “Coexistence of different agricultural production methods working effectively side by side is well established and has a long, successful history in agriculture.” He also says, “according to USDA’s organic rules, the inadvertent presence of GMO in an organic canola field would not constitute a violation of the organic program regulations nor render the canola ineligible for organic certification.”
One of the arguments in favor of using GMOs is that we need increased food to feed our increasing population, and without GMOs to increase the yield, people will starve. What has always been interesting to me about this argument is that the commonly produced GMO plants: field corn, soybeans, cotton, and tobacco are not edible in their unprocessed state. Field corn is fed to animals on feedlots or turned into high-fructose corn syrup; some soybeans may be turned into tofu but most of them are turned into oil or other processed products. Mr. Pitts said that Monsanto has recently developed a GMO sweet corn that will be edible in its natural state.
For a different perspective on farming, Eric McClam, a Tulane graduate in architecture and manager of City Roots farm in Columbia, discussed their farming practices. The three-acre farm, in the Rosewood Neighborhood of Columbia, on property owned by the City of Columbia, “produce[s] clean, healthy, sustainably grown products while enhancing and educating our community about the benefits of locally grown food, composting, vermicomposting and other environmentally friendly farming practices,” according to the website www.cityroots.org.
City Roots won the 2010 Downtown Pinnacle award from the International Downtown Association. More than 600 cities competed for the award, which recognizes innovative development in downtown areas of cities. City Roots Farm and the City of Columbia are proud of this recognition of their partnership in using land that might otherwise be wasted in an urban area.
Not only do they use no GMO seeds, but they also use no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers except manure produced by the laying hens and compost made from crop wastes and vegetable refuse from grocery stores and restaurants. Although they follow organic farming practices, McClam says, “Organic certification does not make sense for us because we know our end user and can talk with them about farming practices directly. Organic certification for 60 varieties of plants is a lot of paperwork.” The farm sells at farmers markets, local stores, and local restaurants.
Through succession planting, where there is another crop ready to go into the ground as soon as one comes out, and organic, sustainable practices, City Roots produces copious amounts of locally grown, nutritious food for the people of Columbia, without using GMOS or buying and applying pesticides and fertilizers. Not buying pesticides or fertilizers keeps their costs down, and gives the farm more money to spend on its biggest expense: human labor to care for the plants.
What a contrast City Roots is from a sterile Midwestern cornfield where nothing but corn grows and farmers have to tend the crop in machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I do not know the solution to feeding the world, but GMOs scare me. Mr. Pitts says that Monsanto did many safety tests to make sure the GMOs will not harm the environment or people, but the technology has only existed since the 1980s. How often have things we thought were safe turned out to be dangerous after the passage of time?